In international relations, there is a rational actor model based on the postulations of a rational choice school of thought that places the individual decision-maker at the center of foreign policy decision-making.1Hudson, V. (2005) Foreign Policy Analysis: Actor-Specific Theory and the Ground of International Relations, Foreign Policy Analysis, 1, p.1-30. This article explores the influence of successive heads of state on the principles, nature, and direction of Tanzania’s foreign policy. The history of Tanzania’s foreign policy suggests that the state and its leadership have been driven by principles such as the promotion of African unity (pan-Africanism) and safeguarding the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of other states in line with the foundational doctrines of the (now disbanded) Organization of African Unity (OAU).2K. Miti, “Tanzania’s Foreign Policy: An Analytical Assessment,” in Globalization and Emerging Trends in African Foreign Policy: A Comparative Perspective of Eastern Africa (Vol. II), eds. Korwa G. Adar and Peter J. Schraeder (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2007), 111-123.

Tanzania’s post-independence foreign policy was modeled on “liberation diplomacy.” As a result, the country and its leadership have played a critical role in regional and continental affairs, including the liberation struggles in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, and South Africa.3Ng’wanza Kamata, “The Economic Diplomacy of Tanzania: Accumulation by Dispossession in a Peripheral State,” Agrarian South Journal of Political Economy 1, no. 3 (2013): 291-313. Imbued with the Ujamaa philosophy, an African form of socialism devised by Tanzania’s first president, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s foreign policy was rooted in the movement for African liberation. The country’s foreign policy has continued to be shaped by Nyerere’s legacy.4L. Shule, “From Southern Africa to the Great Lakes Region: Challenges to Tanzanian Foreign Policy and Conflict Resolution in Sub- Saharan Africa” (PhD Thesis, University of Newcastle Australia, 2014),; Paul Bjerk, Julius Nyerere (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2017).

Tanzania’s post-Cold War foreign policy focused primarily on conflict-resolution in neighboring states, such as Mozambique, Rwanda, and Burundi. Its foreign policy behavior was largely centered on the role of the presidency, underscoring the importance of the individual decision-maker. Tanzania’s multilateral conflict-resolution diplomacy was mainly carried out through the regional body known as the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Even after his retirement as president in 1985, Mwalimu Nyerere continued to facilitate the Burundi peace talks, with the Tanzanian city of Arusha playing host.

The precedent set by Mwalimu Nyerere, who was president from 1964 to1985, continues to shape Tanzania’s conflict-resolution diplomacy. Presidents Ali Hassan Mwinyi (1985-1995), Benjamin Mkapa (1995-2005), and Jakaya Kikwete (2005-2015) continued to play crucial roles in promoting regional stability in the Great Lakes Region (GLR) during their presidencies. Tanzania’s geopolitical positioning influenced its interests in Southern Africa and the GLR. Persistent political instability in these two regions made conflict-resolution a key foreign policy objective for Tanzania.

In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, Tanzania played a central role in mediating conflicts in a turbulent neighborhood, particularly in countries such as in Mozambique, Rwanda, and Burundi. International efforts to deal with the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 resulted in the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which was located in Arusha. Tanzania continued to host many other regional peace efforts. Former President Mkapa still serves as the facilitator of the East African Community-led Inter-Burundi Dialogue. His successor, Jakaya Kikwete, continued with Tanzania’s conflict resolution diplomacy during his time as president. Along with Mkapa, Kikwete was involved in the mediation talks in Kenya after the post-election violence in 2007-2008. Tanzania has also participated in a number of international peacekeeping missions by contributing troops and providing technical assistance.5In terms of UN peacekeeping contributions, Tanzania has been involved in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

President Magufuli’s Foreign Policy

Since the election of President John Magufuli, who succeeded Jakaya Kikwete in 2015, there has been a remarkable and discernable shift in Tanzania’s foreign policy. Early into his presidency, there were signs that Magufuli was more concerned with domestic policy than foreign policy.

Despite his overt concern for domestic policy, one of Magufuli’s early foreign policy moves was improving the frosty relations between Tanzania and Rwanda. During an African Union (AU) meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in May 2013, President Kikwete suggested that President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and President Joseph Kabila of the DRC should negotiate with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)—a rebel outfit in Eastern Congo—because the military efforts by both states had so far failed. President Kagame did not take the recommendations well, sparking a war of words between Rwanda and Tanzania.6Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, “Kikwete in trouble over FDLR, but does he really understand who they are?” African Arguments, June 11, 2013, Magufuli made his first foreign trip to Rwandan in April 2016 in what was seen as a crucial attempt to mend the relationship between the two countries.

Magufuli’s Isolationist Populist Foreign Policy?

Since his election as president, Magufuli has only visited four countries, all within the East Africa region. He has attended only one AU Heads of State and Government Summit in Addis Ababa, in January 2017, and has shunned many other multilateral diplomatic engagements outside Tanzania. Most conspicuous is the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, which he is yet to attend. He has also failed to attend SADC meetings, a key regional organization in which Tanzania had played an important role in the past.

President Magufuli has also kept away from other international engagements such as swearing-in ceremonies for heads of states that have traditionally been key partners in Tanzania’s bilateral diplomacy. However, Tanzania under Magufuli has hosted a number of international leaders, such as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, among others. With the growing wave of authoritarian and competitive populism across the globe, Magufuli, Erdogan, Modi, and Sisi have all, to varying degrees, been described as embodiments of these trends. Magufuli’s populist style seems to be attracting like-minded leaders.

President Magufuli has always maintained that his decision to skip international meetings cuts down on excessive government spending. Last year, Magufuli thanked his foreign minister, Dr. Augustin Mahiga, for representing him well at international meetings, stressing that this arrangement was more economical than if the president traveled. “He [Mahiga] has just arrived from the UN summit where he represented me, saving the government money. This is because sending a minister and his assistant is less expensive than sending the president and his delegation.”7Daniel Mumbere, Tanzania’s Magufuli explains why he skipped U.N. General Assembly, Africa News, October 4, 2018, He has often delegated such international meetings to the vice-president, prime minister, or minister for foreign affairs.

Despite his desire to save money by minimizing foreign travel, the president, as the head of state and chief diplomat, ought to represent the country occasionally at different bilateral and multilateral meetings. Tanzania’s foreign policy was more assertive and nuanced during the four prior administrations. The country’s evident retreat in the realm of foreign policy under Magufuli—toward a less assertive approach—may have rendered its diplomatic efforts less impactful.


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